It’s been a while since a movie so fully pleased both my eyes and mind. Visually beautiful movies at this level are few and far between. The last one that stands out in hindsight was Avatar, which blew other effects-heavy movies out of the water. Avatar gave us a world all its own, and did so with the highest of technology; movies with similar dependence on effects, such as last year’s John Carter, gave us a world that felt like nothing more than a computer-generated movie with incredible lack of detail or creative flourishes. That being said, no one accused Avatar of being a smart movie. Pocahontas in Space, people said, or Dances with Aliens. Those were fair enough comparisons, though I was more than happy with Avatar’s story, because James Cameron and his cast and crew made the best version of Pocahontas ever. Cameron’s movie didn’t have any ideas, but it didn’t need any; Avatar got by on pure exhilaration.
Life of Pi doesn’t suffer from a lack of ideas. You could make the argument that Life of Pi has too many ideas. Originally I was turned off by the fact that Pi, the story’s main character, is a universalist. He takes ideas from many different religions and accepts them all as true. No joke- he calls himself a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Catholic, and all in the same scene. I struggled with this at first, but eventually I got over it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very against universalism. I believe there is absolute truth, and it’s not possible for more than one religion to be true, because they fundamentally contradict each other. So if the movie itself espoused universalism, that would have been a problem for me. And on the surface, the movie appears to agree with Pi, but after further consideration, I’m not so sure the movie is sure what or who it agrees with.
You know from the trailer that the movie is about an Indian boy named Pi on a lifeboat with a tiger. The movie is divided into three sections: Pi’s life before the lifeboat, the lifeboat, and Pi’s life much later after the lifeboat. Director Ang Lee has structured the movie within flashbacks. The older version of Pi, played by Irrfan Khan (whom you might know as a corrupt cop from Slumdog Millionaire), is telling the story of the tiger to a writer (Rafe Spall). The writer has been told that Pi’s story will make him believe in God. He is, of course, skeptical of this. The writer, not God.
Pi’s story begins in India when he was just a child. Pi was a curious boy; the movie follows him as he begins acquiring different religions. There’s a telling scene around a dinner table where his father chastises him for his acceptance of too many theologies. The father isn’t cruel about it, though, just firm. He doesn’t see the logic behind polytheism, or indeed religion in general. Pi’s mother is more encouraging; she wants him to find his way. His father owns a zoo, but eventually the city does not have enough money to support the zoo. His father tells the family they have to move.
This is how they end up on a ship to Canada with all of the zoo’s animals. By this time, Pi is played by the earnest Suraj Sharma, who is the Pi we spend the most time with. I won’t spoil how he ends up on the lifeboat with the tiger, who is named Richard Parker (I also won’t spoil how the tiger gets that name). Suffice it to say that Pi ends up on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker in a harrowing scene akin to the plane crash scene in Flight. The majority of the rest of the movie is a struggle for survival and coexistence between Pi and the tiger. Lee tells this story through incredibly stunning visual sequences that look like no other movie.
Some have called the novel unfilmable, and it does seem like a movie about a boy and a tiger on a boat would be unwatchable. Filming on water must be every director’s worst nightmare, not to mention the fact that there’s a tiger on that water. But if it was a chore, it doesn’t show. Lee has effortlessly interwoven the beautiful visuals with provocative ideas about nature and God. He does this through the push and pull between Pi and Richard Parker. At some point, they come to depend on one another. To Pi, Richard Parker becomes his only friend. At one point, he has an opportunity to kill the tiger, but chooses not to. Given the choice, wouldn’t Richard Parker go with the kill? At first, Pi is sure of he would. Near the end of the movie, Pi is maybe not so sure, and neither are we. Pi comes face to face more than once with death in the form of the tiger, and he has to quickly come to terms with the complexities of man’s relationship with nature.
The writer was told this story would make him believe in God. If this was a true story, I would probably agree, especially during the part where Pi and the tiger come upon a fantastical island. Creation is far too surprising and dynamic to be constrained to the limits of science. I wonder at one of the older Pi’s final lines: “And so it is with God.” Maybe someone can elucidate that for me. The older Pi still believes in multiple religions; this beautiful movie implies that his experience was a confirmation that there is a higher being. The movie also implies that nature laughs at our attempts to explain it in our own way. Universalism might sound good, but if I’m ever stuck on a boat with a tiger, things are going to seem pretty absolute.